How does a Super Rugby coach corral a roster capable of making the playoffs? Richard Knowler talks to Crusaders mentor Todd Blackadder.
Forget the clipboards, mud and whistles, this is the time of year when Crusaders coaches Todd Blackadder, Dave Hewett and Daryl Gibson are forced into the roles of detectives, sales reps and talent scouts.
The scramble for Super Rugby players has been in motion for several months but with just a month remaining until squads are confirmed, the five franchises are not wilting in their pursuit of the last players to complete their rosters.
In addition to watching the national provincial championship matches, many coaches peer at footage of players on a sports analysis system, trawl through statistics, travel to matches to observe them in action, speak to current and former coaches, gather character references and quiz their own players about how they rate the man they want to sign.
The problem for the coaches is they realise they are not the only one hunting their quarry - another franchise may be gathering their own intelligence and already presenting a contract.
If Blackadder thinks a prospect is worth further scrutiny, he launches a quiet investigation into how he operates on and off the field.
"The first thing you want to know is if he is under contract or not and then you go through all the stats and see how he rates against everyone else. Then, if you are really interested, you can gauge some interest with his agent and see if he's keen," Blackadder said.
"You then want to watch him live to see what he does off the ball and then maybe take it even further from there."
Unearthing decent backup players can be tricky. While most coaches quickly sign up the top players in each position, it is important they make the right choice when selecting backup players.
"You have got to do your homework, you have to know who is out there and that is time-consuming. You just watch a player until you know his game inside and out."
Although all franchises have probably locked in the majority of their 28 protected players, and the likes of the Crusaders and Chiefs are understood to have already contracted around 26 each, the search never stops.
Teams can contract up to 32 players, although for the 2012 season the Crusaders were forced to limit their squad to 30 because of the salary cap. The New Zealand Rugby Union retainers can reach a maximum of $180,000 for the top players.
With the NZRU allowing franchises to increase their wider training groups to eight players, and also committing to bigger salaries to allow them to train as fulltime professionals, it is possible some head coaches will have to manage 40 squad members next year.
As Blackadder, Hewett and Gibson hunt for new recruits they also have to be mindful that the clock is ticking.
One important date has already passed.
On Monday they forwarded a "contenders list" to the NZRU that indicated what players they could possibly contract next year. This allows the NZRU to confirm whether those players are available.
Some players have also been delisted by their franchises, giving them the chance to seek employment at another franchise - although they could still be plucked out of the draft by the coach who originally offloaded them.
A player has the option of terminating his contract if he has been de-listed and potentially go overseas but because most overseas clubs have already settled their squads this is not a popular option.
Although he could not be reached for comment yesterday it is believed Crusaders wing Sean Maitland has been de-listed and Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph is looking to snare him. All Blacks prop Ben Franks was delisted from the Crusaders before signing with the Hurricanes.
October 23 is the eligibility deadline for when lists of up to 28 contracted players must be sent to the NZRU, followed a week later by the selection meeting to determine what, if any, players will be taken out of the draft. Squads are announced on October 31.
This process of recruitment and retention began well before the Chiefs won title at Waikato Stadium in early August.
Throughout the year, regular meetings have been staged between Blackadder, Hewett and Gibson in the Crusaders' offices at Rugby Park as they determine which positions needed to be filled. No doubt they also discussed which underperforming players needed to be culled.
Even before the NPC began, many players had agreed to re-commit but Blackadder noted there were always a few holes to be filled before settling the draft picks.
Recently, Hewett and Gibson were sighted at a Counties-Manukau game and it is understood loose forward Jimmy Tupou is on their target list, while Tasman's Shane Christie may be added as an openside flanker to assist in accommodating the loss of Richie McCaw.
If the Crusaders are seeking to impress a new prospect they will fly him to Christchurch, give him a tour of their facilities around Rugby Park, introduce him to key staff and possibly try to impress him by introducing him to a couple of All Blacks.
When Blackadder has talks with a player he says he resists the urge to talk money; he prefers to leave that to the Crusaders' high-performance manager Steve Lancaster.
"I never cloud the discussion by talking about money, it is about the rugby opportunity," Blackadder said. "I never force them and I never put a timeline on it . . . people need to choose to want to come here. I don't want anyone who just wants to clip a ticket."
Coaches also have be wary about not letting their egos blur their judgment. If a player is talented but has the potential to create trouble, the coach needs to decide whether he is worth the risk.
How they handle rejection is also important; although coaches don't want a hell-raiser they want the player to remain hungry and keep pushing at training for starts.
If the player is eager to sign, his manager or agent will become involved.
Although Sonny Bill Williams' agent Khoder Nasser was regularly spotted around the All Blacks' and Crusaders hotels when he was with the Christchurch-based side, most agents remain the background.
Once a call is logged, the negotiating begins.
"The agents want to make the best decision for the player at the time and we understand that," Blackadder says.
"But I think the really important thing is they look for the right career pathway for their player and not just the dollar signs."